Serbia offensive: UN swept aside by bombing strikes

Security Council
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The Independent Online
LAMENTING A "grave moment for the international community", the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, last night expressed thinly disguised frustration that Nato had gone forward with its air strikes against Serbia without deferring first to the UN Security Council for specific authorisation.

Speaking at the start of an emergency meeting of the council called by Russia, Mr Annan laid the primary blame for the crisis on the authorities in Belgrade who, he said, "have persisted in their rejection of a political settlement, which would have halted the bloodshed in Kosovo and secured an equitable peace".

But Mr Annan was unable to hide his disappointment at the manner in which his own organisation had been sidelined by Nato. "The Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security - and this is explicitly acknowledged in the North Atlantic Treaty," he said.

Last night, the council became a forum for Russia to vent its anger at Nato. The Russian ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, said his government was "profoundly outraged at Nato's use of military force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". He demanded an immediate cessation of the bombardment.

In a 10-minute assault on Nato, the ambassador said all Nato members had to "realise the serious responsibility they bare for this in subverting the UN Charter and the norms of international law". The Nato alliance is "not entitled to determine the fate of other sovereign states", he said.

The US ambassador, Peter Burleigh, countered that the UN had already passed resolutions condemning Serb repression in Kosovo. "We believe that such action is necessary to respond to Belgrade's brutal persecution," he insisted. "Belgrade's action in Kosovo cannot be dismissed as an internal matter".

Russia found few supporters for its case that the Nato strikes were illegal because it had no UN imprimatur. Aside from China, which traditionally opposes all outside intervention in other states' affairs, most council members voiced regret last night but also reluctant support for the action.

Ambassador Lavrov faced an uphill task in part because several members of the council also belong to Nato - the US, Canada, Britain, France and the Netherlands. Other members unlikely to share Russian's anger were Slovenia, which has little love for Serbia, and Bahrain, which has sympathy for the Muslim Kosovars.

Moscow is expected to use the council over the coming days as a forum to voice its anger at an action it considers to be illegal. Russia will argue that the Nato action was in violation of international law because there is no UN resolution giving it specific backing. "The Security Council cannot remain silent," Mr Lavrov said last night.

The first Nato bomb to crater Yugoslav soil will go down in history as the moment when Russia realised exactly how far it had fallen since it bestrode the world as a superpower counterbalancing the might of the US. The alliance's refusal to listen to Moscow's pleas to spare its Slavic cousins marks a new low in the ambivalent relationship with the US. Russia finds itself cast not as an enemy but as a sponging lightweight.

Kosovo has turned Russian reservations about the West into concrete resentment and deep suspicion likely to influence policy for years.

Nato capitals would clearly would have preferred some imprimatur from the Security Council. But diplomats in New York privately noted that tabling such a resolution was always ruled out because of the near certainty of vetoes from Russia and perhaps also China.

The net result is that the council finds itself on the sidelines on this crisis. Whereas its deliberations were of some importance in determining international handling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the Kosovo issue it has had no weight and no obvious role to play. Mr Annan has found himself equally irrelevant.

David Usborne

and Phil Reeves